No matter how hard he works, Amazon.com Inc.'s chief executive of world-wide consumer is only the second most important "Jeff" at the company.
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Still, Jeff Wilke's supervision now spans many of the Seattle-based company's core businesses, including retail, operations, technology and its marketplace and accompanying seller services. Part of the 18-year Amazon veteran's role is to obsess about the wants and needs of the retailer's customers.
Near the beginning of his career there, Mr. Wilke used his manufacturing expertise to help create a more efficient way of running Amazon's warehouses that made its two-day Prime shipping service possible. Mr. Wilke, who graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University and an M.B.A. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also has molded the leadership principles which guide employee behavior.
Now Mr. Wilke is in charge of integrating Amazon's new subsidiary, Whole Foods Market Inc. and its roughly 87,000 employees. He also is part of the leadership team working on the company's search for a second North American headquarters.
Wearing his traditional fourth-quarter flannel shirt, a nod to the company's more than 250,000 warehouse workers filling holiday orders, Mr. Wilke talked about Amazon's plans for Whole Foods, why it is splitting its headquarters in two and what it is like to disagree with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
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The Wall Street Journal: How do you approach major, company-shifting decisions like acquiring Whole Foods or creating a new headquarters?
Mr. Wilke: If the decision is reversible, we would prefer that people take a chance. You can walk through the door. If you don't like what you see on the other side, you just walk back through and you're fine. If it's not reversible, we spend a lot more time thinking about those. We will argue the merits of whatever decision we are making.
WSJ: Amazon encourages employees to fail big. Tell us about a big, fall-on-your-face failure.
Mr. Wilke: When we were deciding whether to do Kindle, Jeff (Bezos) presented his idea to the board. I thought at the time, "We're a software company that built a retail business. We don't know anything about hardware." I'd come from companies that built hardware, so I knew how complicated it was. I said, "I don't think we should do this." I predicted that yields would be hard, that we might miss our first launch date, etc. Many of the things I predicted ultimately happened. But it didn't matter. Jeff at the time said, "It's the right thing to do for customers." I disagreed and committed, and I'm very glad I did.
WSJ: What did Mr. Bezos say to you after?
Mr. Wilke: Once we make a decision, we just move on. There are too many opportunities to invent for customers to keep score. All of us have been wrong at various times.
WSJ: Whole Foods is known for a more freewheeling, localized culture. What will Amazon have to change to integrate its new subsidiary?
Mr. Wilke: We've made a number of acquisitions over the years, and we work really hard to respect the cultures that have been successful. There are some ways that we can help a subsidiary like Whole Foods with resources, maybe with ideas, maybe with some IT services that we've already built. But we don't want their culture to change.
WSJ: What Whole Foods practices could you see adopting?
Mr. Wilke: I hope we're going to learn about how physical stores work. They know a lot about food, produce -- supply chains at a very large national scale. We're going to learn with them how we can efficiently -- and in a high-quality way -- deliver groceries to our customers.
WSJ: Amazon's culture isn't for everyone. How do you suss that out in the hiring process?
Mr. Wilke: In an interview situation, we use the leadership principles as a guide to help us evaluate whether somebody would fit in. There are lots of situations where you could decide to optimize for the customer or to get ahead of the competitor. We want to pay attention to competitors, but we obsess over customers. If I detect that they are too focused on competitors, they probably aren't going to be a great fit.
WSJ: Amazon is now a retailer, a cloud-services provider, a film studio, a device company, a parcel carrier and a technology giant. An estimated 40% of U.S. online spending goes to Amazon. What would you say to people who say the company is too big?
Mr. Wilke: You just listed a very diverse and horizontally large set of businesses. I think there's a big difference between horizontal breadth and vertical depth. In every one of the businesses that you describe, we have incredible competition. In world-wide retail, we're less than 1%. We think our job is to keep inventing for customers in each of these areas, and we hope that if we continue to invent well, they'll choose us to be one of the folks who wins. I don't think any one of these areas is a football game where there's only one winner.
WSJ: What's the reasoning behind splitting Amazon's headquarters in two?
Mr. Wilke: We have a lot of people in Seattle. We actually expect to add 2 million square feet and 6,000 people in the next 12 months here. But we think it's important if we're going to continue to grow, to make sure we have the space. And it'll diversify the opportunity for people to choose where they would like to live.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 10, 2017 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)